Chocolate is delicious. It’s a sweet melt-in-your-mouth treat that’s found in all kinds of tasty foods. It also contains antioxidants, which means this high-calorie indulgence has some health benefits, provided you don’t eat too much of it.

Chocolate also is a big business backed by science. The confectionery industry in the United States — makers of chocolate, candy, gum and other products made from cocoa, chocolate’s primary ingredient — generates more than $37 billion in annual sales, according to the National Confectioners Association.. The industry requires scientists to make sure that gum is chewy enough, that candy is sweet enough and chocolate is, well, chocolate-y enough.

Food and nutritional scientist Roberta Claro da Silva, Ph.D., has been awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create the first academic course about chocolate at a Historically Black College and University. The grant also will support her research into chocolate and learning-based opportunities for North Carolina A&T students interested in entering the confectionary industry.

“This grant is a testament to Dr. Silva’s vision and persistence,” said Shirley Hymon-Parker, Ph.D., the CAES interim dean. “She arrived at North Carolina A&T in 2018 with the idea to create a course and conduct research on chocolate, and this support from USDA will enable her to do both. These endeavors will help attract more students to the Family and Consumer Sciences Department and provide more post-graduation opportunities for these students.”

Silva, an associate professor and program coordinator for the college’s food and nutritional sciences major, was awarded a three-year grant of $599,448 in May by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) 1890 Institution Teaching, Research and Extension Capacity Building Grants Program. Valerie L. Giddings, Ph.D., A&T’s senior vice provost for academic affairs and an associate professor of family and consumer sciences, will serve as a co-PI.

Silva first encountered chocolate in an academic setting during a postdoctoral fellowship at Utah State University in 2016. Intrigued by the university’s general education course in the science and history of chocolate and fascinated by the possibilities of chocolate science, Silva brought the idea with her when she joined the CAES faculty two years later.

“I think North Carolina A&T students deserve to have the same learning opportunities as other students,” Silva said. “This is a chance for our students to be more involved in this area of food science and gain the skills and knowledge to move into the confectionary industry.”

The USDA grant will help make Silva’s vision a reality. She will spend the next academic year designing the course, which will be first offered in fall 2025. The three-credit semester-long course will cover chocolate’s history, origins and chemistry, the different types of cocoa plants, and how chocolate is processed. The course will be an intensive upper-level offering aimed at juniors, seniors and graduate students. Students will get hands-on experience with chocolate in the lab, where they will learn how to make chocolate — “from bean to bar,” Silva said.

CAES students can participate in summer internships at two primary partners in this project: Utah State, which operates a small-batch chocolate processing facility on campus; and Hershey, the Pennsylvania company that’s one of the world’s largest chocolate makers.

“This course, and our partnerships with Utah State, Hershey and others, will give CAES students the knowledge and the skill set to go into the confectionary industry,” Silva said. “With the classroom and industry experience, they’ll be better able to compete for these positions in these industries, which are looking to diversify their workforces.”

The grant will allow Silva, a lipid scientist, to conduct research that addresses one of chocolate’s greatest challenges: heat. Chocolate melts at about 34 °C (93 °F). In warmer climates, high heat makes it difficult for chocolate to remain solid as it’s stored, transported and stocked on store shelves. Researchers have attempted to replace cocoa butter with solid fats that hold up in the heat, but the resulting product lacks the melt-in-your-mouth characteristic that makes chocolate so good. Other fat substitutes have been unable to faithfully reproduce chocolate’s most desirable traits: a slight crunch when bitten into, and a smooth, bright and creamy texture as it melts slowly in your mouth.

Silva has done extensive research on oleogels, semi-solid gel-like materials with physiochemical qualities similar to those of saturated fats that hold promise as an innovative fat substitute. Silva’s research will focus on finding a lipid modification that mimics the taste and texture of cocoa butter while raising its melting point.

“Chocolate has a complex structural chemistry,” Silva said. “As more scientists gain a deeper understanding of this complexity, we will be able to develop superior chocolate products in the future.”